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City, Municipal Utilities file answer to fired general manager's lawsuit


WILLMAR -- The city of Willmar and Willmar Municipal Utilities deny liability and damages alleged in a lawsuit filed by fired utility general manager Bruce Gomm. The city and utility Friday filed an answer to Gomm's lawsuit in Kandiyohi County District Court.

The commission voted 5-2 Feb. 27 to terminate Gomm, effective this Wednesday, based on policy violations and findings in an investigative report conduct by attorney Dyan Ebert of St. Cloud.

Gomm filed his lawsuit March 2, alleging discrimination, breach of contract, fraud and violation of the Open Meeting Law.

In their answer to Gomm's lawsuit, the city and utility allege Gomm failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and allege Gomm failed to state a claim for fraud with sufficient particularity.

The city and utility also say any damages allegedly sustained by Gomm were caused by, due to and the result of improper conduct on Gomm's part, and allege Gomm's claims are barred by the legal doctrines of official immunity and statutory immunity.

The commission received an update Monday on the lawsuit from attorney Paul Reuvers of Bloomington, who represents the city and the utilities, during a 30-minute closed session. Attending the closed session were commissioners Dave Baker, Steve Salzer, Matt Schrupp, Dan Holtz, Doug Lindblad and Carol Laumer. Jerry Gesch was absent.

Also attending were City Attorney Rich Ronning, Reuvers, interim co-managers Wes Hompe and Larry Heinen, and Bruce DeBlieck, council liaison to the commission.

The commission took no action on the lawsuit after reconvening in open session.

A scheduling conference has been set for 8:30 a.m. May 3 with Judge Michael J. Thompson, according to the Eighth Judicial District Court website.

In a brief interview, Reuvers said cases normally take from 9 months to a year if the case were to go to trial. Reuvers said he expects depositions will be taken of Gomm and other key people. He said some motions may be made to dismiss some or all of the issues, "but we haven't made that determination yet.''

Reuvers estimates a trial would take three days.

Gomm was hired as general manager on May 11, 2007. The city and utility deny Gomm's claim that he was subject to harassment based on his religion. Gomm is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The city and utility deny Gomm received criticism from commissioners or other city officials based on his Mormon faith; deny that employees were fired who are members of his faith in an attempt to deprecate his and their religion; and deny that anyone interfered with the performance of Gomm's duties due to his religious faith.

The city and utility deny Gomm was fired because of his religion and said there is absolutely nothing in Ebert's report suggesting the complaints against Gomm were based on his religious beliefs.

The city and utility admit they and Gomm had discussions on or before his hire day concerning an employment contract, and they admit Gomm's contract included a provision that purportedly entitled him to a severance package of one year's salary along with certain benefits, provided he was not terminated with cause.

Gomm claims he was not legally discharged for cause; that the discharge for alleged cause violated the employment agreement; and that Gomm was denied severance pay and benefits to be received upon termination.

However, the city and utility said Gomm was properly terminated for cause and he is not otherwise entitled to one year's salary as severance pay. They also deny the contract provision concerning one year's salary as severance pay for termination without cause is enforceable under state law.

The city and utility say state law limits severance packages for highly compensated employees to no more than six months' wages. They also say Gomm is charged with knowing the law and had an opportunity for his own attorney to review the employment contract.

The city and utility deny they defamed or slandered Gomm to various people or institutions. They deny Mayor Frank Yanish told former commission president Bob Bonawitz that Gomm had made unauthorized hotel charges in Washington, D.C.

The city and utility admit council member Ron Christianson told Ebert that $800-per-night hotel charges were made. However, they say Gomm failed to turn in his receipts to justify and explain the expenses as required by the utility's credit card and expense reimbursement policy, even after commissioners raised the issue with Gomm.

The city and utility deny any statements were made that Gomm was hiring unqualified employees because they were members of his own faith. But they allege Gomm did in fact hire unqualified employees for open utility positions, including an individual who had no office manager experience or skills at an excessive compensation package in excess of $70,000, and an individual who did not possess the necessary commercial driver's license and boiler's license to qualify as a coal handler.

Also, the city and utility deny that they conducted many illegally closed meetings.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150